Over Easy: Smart phones, dumb people


For the Valley News

Published: 03-03-2023 1:57 PM

I’m starting to think that this digital life is going to be the end of us. It’s only a matter of time until ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence thingamabob that all the cool columnists are writing about, will be bossing us around, making us run its errands, dust its circuits, and force us to listen to it croon like Perry Como. (It might outsmart us, but it will never sing as smoothly as ol’ Perry.)

But for now, let’s worry about cell phones.

They are the advance troops that are softening up humans who, as I recall, used to whittle, whistle, and while away the time — without apps to make everything so easy. I remember this specifically from my youth, when we grew strong by making calls with torturously difficult rotary phones. Halfway through, if you were a shy and sensitive kid, you suspected you might have misdialed a number, which would lead to humiliation, so you started over. With sufficient self-doubt, it might take five or ten minutes to reach someone.

Calling long distance was an ordeal, because your parents, siblings and aunts and uncles who might happen to be visiting would shout as loud as air raid sirens: HURRY UP! IT’S LONG DISTANCE! Even the family dog would bark in a fury, because the calls were pricey, and dogs intuitively resented the monopoly power of Ma Bell. In all the clatter, babies would cry, alarms would go off, neighbors would call the police.

And this is why I had no pals in California, or anyplace more than a bike ride away from my house.

Now, calling people is just the start with cell phones. They tell us where to go. Nobody has maps anymore, and few recall the historic parchments that would reveal you could take Route 12A from West Lebanon to Route 12 in Claremont and then all the way to Fitchburg, Mass., where possibly all your dreams could come true.

Digital is specific, paper included options: maybe a side trip to downtown Unity. You could get lost anywhere, but you never knew what you might find: home-made ice cream around the next corner at Wally’s Sweet Shoppe. Now there’s just another McDonald’s — the era of Lewis and Clarke is just a McNugget of memory.

Smart phones have taken away our ability to concentrate on anything, illustrated by the meandering ways of this very column.

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Allow me to sneak up on my point. Just recently I noticed three young people shopping in a West Lebanon supermarket. They were shopping while fooling around, something I did as recently as 50 years ago. I envied their joie de vivre, even though I know hardly any French.

Then I saw that one girl hesitated as she sashayed past the broccoli. In one hand was her phone, which she, in the midst of whimsy, raised closer to her eyes, and reached out with the other hand to swipe at it. Actual life wasn’t enough. She had to check Instagram.

It was a short look, but it seemed to me that it was something she needed to do, like a nervous tic or a drag on a cigarette.

I can understand why people check phones when alone and bored, or stuck at a bus station. But the call of cell phones is becoming stronger and stronger. This year you will not be shocked to see a Red Sox center fielder check his phone during a pitching change. An Associated Press story will tell of a father in Eufaula, Okla., who missed seeing the exact moment of the birth of his son because he’d received a notification from the Weather Channel. A Congressional investigation will find that radar watchers missed the initial incursion of the Chinese spy balloon because they were sharing videos of Rihanna.

I have seen four people at a table in a casual restaurant looking at four phones. I have seen mothers pushing strollers and chatting on their phone instead of cooing at their baby. I have seen teenagers walking into rooms with cell phones planted in front of their face as if they’d been hypnotized.

I bet you, the reader, have checked your phone once or twice while reading this. I did the same while typing it.

Critics, experts and professors desperate for tenure debate whether we have become addicted to our phones. We have, we are lost, and my mind turns to the career stats of Don Buddin, a so-so shortstop for the Red Sox about 60 years ago. For some reason I absolutely have to revisit them right now. Nicknamed “Bootin’ Buddin” by demanding fans, he led the league in errors twice and was near the top twice more.

Thank goodness I have a device at hand that has all the answers.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.